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Cary Audio SLI-80 Integrated Amp

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					    Cary Audio SLI-80 Integrated Amplifier                       reflects the commitment to quality that is found in every
                                                                 aspect of what the company does. The SLI-80 is no
Manufacturer: Cary Audio Design, Inc., 1020 Goodworth            lightweight as it weighs in at 42 pounds Cary audio has
Drive, Apex, NC 27539                                            a firm grip on the abuse that most shipments suffer at
919-355-0010 voice / 919-355-0013 fax, website:                  the hands of America’s finest shipping companies. Once
www.caryaudio.com                                                the unit is unpacked and placed for listening one must
Price: $3,000                                                    then unpack the array of ten vacuum tubes that drive the
Source: Manufacturer Loan                                        unit.
Reviewer: Gary Lea                                                    My sample came in the standard black chassis finish
                                                                 with the black anodized aluminum face plate. This is the
     As fate would have it this review is only partially         traditional Cary Audio look with gold lettering, but other
complete. I must give a nod to the late, great John              colors are available; I am actually quite partial to the blue
Steinbeck. Actually it is probably very bad karma to             chassis finish that I saw on my last visit to the shop.
mention such an esteemed, prolific author in an article               The SLI-80 is a Push Pull Ultra Linear Pure Class AB-
written by a self-admitted hack, but it is appropriate, if       1 integrated amp. It will produce 80 watts per channel in
only in a metaphoric way. I just kept mumbling a very            Ultra Linear mode, but at the flip of a very solid switch,
familiar line of his as this review unfolded. This was           on top of the chassis, it will move to Triode mode at a
supposed to be part of a three-part, three-component Cary        rated 40 watts per channel. Input sensitivity is rated a
Audio review. The idea was simple. Take the Cary Audio           .45 volt for full output and the noise and hum rating is
DVD 6 player, already                                            stated at -82 dB below full output. Frequency response is
reviewed in these pages,                                                                                 19Hz to 23 kHz +/
hook it up to the Cary                                                                                   - 0.5 dB.
Audio SLI-80 integrated                                                                                        There are three
amp, and add the Q5er                                                                                    transformers in the
speaker system from                                                                                      unit, one power
Cary’s subsidiary Audio                                                                                  transformer and
Electronic Supply. Build                                                                                 two           output
a single-manufacturer                                                                                    transformers. Each
$7500 system and see                                                                                     of these are EI
whether it justified the                                                                                 laminate         and
price. Alas, “the best laid                                                                              s i l i c o n -
plans of mice and men!”                                                                                  impregnated. The
As it turned out about                                                                                   unit uses oil-filled
two weeks after arrival                                                                                  c o u p l i n g
of the speakers, word                                                                                    capacitors (copper
came from the Dan                                                                                        oil filled capacitors
Lilley, of AES, that the                                                                                 are available as an
decision had been made                                                                                   option).         The
to not bring the speakers                                                                                transformers and
to market. That, as it                                                                                   capacitors occupy
turned out, is a real                                                                                    the back third of
shame, as they are great-sounding speakers. Nonetheless,                                                 the chassis with the
the show goes on, as they say. It is time to turn the critical   front two thirds being occupied by the tube array. The
eye to the SLI-80 integrated amp.                                driver compliment consists of two 6922 input buffer
     Anyone familiar with Dennis Had and his design              preamp tubes, two 6SN7 pre driver/phase inverter tubes,
philosophies will know that everything turned out of the         two 5U4 rectifier tubes, and four 6550 output tubes. The
North Carolina shop of Cary Audio is built to very               tube sockets are ceramic with silver connector pins. When
exacting standards. I have yet to see anything from Cary         the time comes to re-tube the unit, the average cost,
Audio that was not both aesthetically pleasing and built         depending on the choice of tubes and country of origin,
to a quality level that few others can match on any scale.       will run you approximately $400.
From the Jaguar paint finishes to the details of the switch           If you are one of those audiophiles who enjoy the
gear, Cary Audio equipment reeks of class and quality.           warm glow of tubes in your room, you will be very happy
The SLI-80 is no exception to this rule. As a matter of          with the light produced by this array. During the entire
fact, it combines the best of what Cary Audio is all about       time I have had the SLI-80, two of the 6550 output tubes
in one neat footprint, 7”x17”x16” to be exact. Not much          have maintained a very soothing purple plasma glow to
bigger than the size of many CD decks.                           them. Usually this burns off pretty quickly, but I have
     Unpacking any piece of Cary equipment requires you          been very lucky with these two tubes. What a bonus!
to pack a lunch and plan on having some friends around                On the front panel the unit sports three inputs, CD,
to assist in the activity. Boxed inside a box and packed to      AUX1, and AUX2. There is also a _” headphone jack right
insure that all arrives safe and sound the packaging             on the front panel. The unit is also supplied with a
compact remote volume control that also provides                HW19 MKIII and Thorens 850 turntables, Usher CP6311,
functions for muting. Can we get a standing ovation for         Soliloquy 6.0i, Monitor Gold 10, AES Q5, and ADD C880
the couch potato within? Now would be a good time to            speakers, Kimber Monocle XL, Usher Proton speaker
point out one of the few negative observations I found          cables and interconnects, Blue Circle power pillows, and
with this unit. The supplied remote control was the rather      Monster HT 200 conditioners.
lightweight and had a somewhat inconsequential feel to                After giving this piece of art a good chance to run in
it. I have seen and held other remotes produced by Cary         I began numerous sessions of critical listening. I pulled
Audio and they had the same look and feel of the units          out my standard collection of testing CDs and went to
they were controlling. This means they were substantial         work. On Sheryl Crow’s “Difficult Kind,” from The Globe
in weight and feel and silky smooth in operation. This          Sessions CD (A&M3145409592) there are two passages
remote was a disappointment. Not that it does not work          where her voice, if properly reproduced, suddenly takes
well, it does. Not that it is uncomfortable in the hand, it     on a smoothness and a sweetness that seem to suddenly
is. It just seems less than comparable to the rest of the       be out of place in the song. It is the perfect vocalization
component in look and feel.                                     of tremendous and soulful regret. These two passages
      The back panel is split in a left channel right channel   can send chills down your spine. Played through the SLI-
setup with the connections arranged accordingly. All            80, those passages made me squirm, reach for my remote,
connectors are top quality and there is a 4-ohm/8-ohm           and play them time and time again, because it was just
speaker switch. There is also a manually adjustable bias        too good not to. When you can sense the aura of a singer
with meter jacks for each channel.                              swirling around, and you cannot only hear the faint
      On cold winter nights you could probably keep your        breath but actually feel it, you know that something very
hands fairly warm just standing over it. The Cary SLI-80        magical is happening with the midrange reproduction.
is handsome enough to put out on top of a nice cabinet          Many people say that tubes add warmth to the music
as a show piece. The full duration of its stay with me it       and I won’t disagree but when you hear passages like
has set on top of our cabinet and has garnered more than        this you realize that at times warmth is the correct thing.
a few admirable compliments, even from non                      Nowhere is that more apparent than with the SLI-80. The
audiophiles.                                                    midrange coming from this little unit is more natural in
      The full break-in period is around 100 hours for the      timbre and quality, to my ears, than anything I have heard
SLI-80. Of course, few people who purchase a component          from solid state and when compared to the best of tube
like this can wait the full 100 hours to sit down and take      amps this little guy can stand on his own. What is most
a good long listen. The good news for those people is           amazing is that it sounds lifelike and after all that is what
that the SLI-80 sounds pretty good out of the box and it        it is all about.
only gets better as it breaks in.                                     From the same track, the opening has the strumming
      I have owned a few integrated amps over the years.        of what sounds like a very processed Fender Telecaster
Marantz and Jolida are two that immediately come to             and there is some real sparkle within the track. If the
mind. While they were very good units in their own right,       upper tonal range of your system is overly forward, this
and served me very well at the times I owned them, I            particular part of the track will sound dry, brittle, and
always found that for critical listening, separates were        altogether irritating. The highs coming through the SLI-
the way to go. In designing integrated amps you                 80 were extended and full without any grain. I have heard
inevitably deal with challenges of packing everything into      numerous amps produce more sparkling and crisp highs
a single chassis. Single shared power source, etc. I think I    but often with a bit of shrillness or edge attached. The
prejudiced myself against the notion of an integrated amp       Cary does away with that unpleasant trait and just
having the level of finesse and detail that I am used to for    produces a very solid and smooth extension in the top
these very reasons.                                             end. There is nothing unusual in that for a Cary product.
      When this unit arrived, I for some unexplained            As a matter of fact they are usually stellar performers in
reason expected to hear a unit with spot-on midrange,           those areas.
rolled-off highs, little or no depth of bass, and all the             Where it got interesting was in the bottom end. I find
dynamic punch of overcooked linguine. I just did not            that the one general and often universal tradeoff in tube
expect all that much. After all this was an integrated tube     amps is the bass, especially in lower power tube amps. I
amp. Well, I was in for quite a little surprise. Gregg Dunn     fully expected the biggest tradeoff to occur here. We are
had warned me that I was in for a treat but I have always       talking about an 80/40-watt stereo amp. Oftentimes they
had the bent for the separates and I was not quite ready        just do not have the punch to produce tight, tuneful bass
for what this little unit had to offer. Any reviewer out        notes. In comparison to most solid state amps, even ones
there who does not admit to having certain favorites and        that are lower price point units, the bass just comes up
certain biases is probably not being realistic with himself.    short. I am not going to tell you that the Cary SLI-80 blew
I am no different. By the same token, one who cannot            away the top solid state amps in the bass reproduction,
admit when he is wrong is not a truly enlightened               but I will say that it handled the chores with more guts
individual, is he? Time spent with the SLI-80 changed           than any other amp of this power that I have ever listened
my narrow perspective. I became quite enlightened both          to. My old reference Quicksilver KY 88 amps had the
metaphorically and physically.                                  ability to produce some serious bass at the same wattage.
      Associated Equipment: Cary Audio DVD 6, VPI               The SLI-80 was able to match them punch for punch and
that is saying something. Keb Mo’s “More Than One Way         When you compare the cost of a separate amp and
Home” from the Just Like You CD (OKeb/Epic EK67136)           preamp combo of the same quality and the cost of the
contains some very deep bass lines that really drive the      extra interconnects the cost seems more like a bargain
song. They happen, though, to be a very tuneful anchor        and if you are tight for space this unit eats of precious
to the track. Amplifiers that are unable to cope with the     little real estate in the house. Paula gave it a high WAF!
range leave you with a song that sounds more like it is       Plus in essence you are getting two different amps in one
laced with thumping than true tuneful low register            package and to shift between them you simply have to
harmony and musicality. Here is where the SLI-80 caught       climb out of that chair, walk across the room and flip a
me way off guard, especially in the triode mode. It           switch.
handled every bit of that track with speed and steadiness           My buddy Kevin, who just acquired his first high-
one would expect out of a top line 100 plus watt solid        end tube-based stereo, was simply amazed at how the
state amp.                                                    SLI-80 reproduced the music. His comment was that the
     If you have not taken a listen to the soundtrack from    music was so much bigger than the amp. He also
The Last Samurai, (Elektra 62932-2) you should. Composed      suggested we might want to review the unit at his place
and arranged by Hans Zimmer and performed by the              for an extended period.
Hollywood Studio Symphony, it is a masterful blend of               I give him high marks for the effort. His comment
Zen tranquility and spates of brutal samurai warring all      was not lost on me though, as the SLI-80 produces
rolled into one stellar performance. The CD provides a        quantity and quality of music that one would expect to
real gauntlet of dynamic swings and will test the speed       get only from larger and much more expensive separates.
and composure of any amplifier. The SLI-80 really             With this amp, a decent front end source, and a reasonable
showed its metal throughout the presentation. From the        set of speakers you could put together a system for under
soft and delicate wood flute passages, through the            $5000 that would be very satisfying for a very long time.
melodic picking of June Kuramoto (from the jazz               With this amp as the anchor you could invest a bit more
ensemble Hiroshima fame) on the Koto to the thundering        on a great set of speakers like the Usher CP6311s and a
Taiko drums, the SLI handled them all in stride and never     better front end source and you can be into a very high
faltered in handling the transients.                          end system for roughly $7,500. That is not small change
     I presented the unit with a number of different          to be sure. On the other hand many people cheerfully
speakers and it showed no sign of stress or trouble driving   pay three to four times that to get the same level of sound
any of them. It pushed large floor standers with the same     quality.
tenacity it showed smaller monitors. This is an integrated          You get bulletproof construction, great aesthetics,
amp that can be compatible with a very large and              holographic imaging, and magical midrange
differing group of speakers.                                  reproduction. Coupling those points with the fact that
     I ended up listening most of the time to the SLI-80 in   the Cary Audio SLI-80 just simply delivers some of the
triode mode. Not that the more powerful push-pull mode        most enjoyable sound you will find in that price point
produced less quality, I just found that with the finesse     makes it an item you want to be sure to audition. It may
of the triode mode it just sounded better on the majority     not be everyone’s cup of tea but this is one very versatile
of tracks that I like to listen to and produced enough        amp.
oomph for the tracks that needed to be handled with                 Indeed, the best-laid plans of engineers and
authority. Many people who like to produce stronger           audiophiles can come together. This is a great example
sound pressure levels and who are into very bass-heavy        of that phenomenon. I will miss it when it finds its way
music such as hip hop might find the push-pull mode           back to North Carolina!
more to their liking.                                                                                                 -GL
     One of the absolute beauties of this unit is the
flexibility that it offers its owner. You want party music?
For electronica such as The Crystal Method’s “Trip Like
                                                              Excerpted with permission from The Sensible Sound, Is-
I Do” from the Vegas CD (Outpost Recordings OPRD-
                                                              sue 108, Apr./May ‘06. Subscriptions to TSS can be pur-
30003) flip the switch to push-pull and the SLI-80 serves
                                                              chased by calling 1-800-695-8439 or writing to: 403 Dar-
up enough punch and sass to make you want to get up
                                                              win Drive, Snyder NY 14226.
and shake your moneymaker. Just add club lighting and
you are there. You want to enjoy the smooth jazz
renditions of Her Highness, Queen Latifah’s “California
Dreaming” off her Dana Owens Album CD (A7M
b0003435-02)? Turn down the lights, grab a snifter of
Grand Centanario Anejo, flip the switch to triode, sit back
in your leather chair, and you will be center stage in a
smoky little jazz club close enough to reach out and touch
the Queen.
     There will be people who will say that this is a good
deal of scratch for a minimal-feature, moderate-power
integrated amplifier. I would have to argue that point.

				
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